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December 30, 2013 / BTM

How Do You Nurture Critical Thinking In Your Child?

question the answer

In my last post, I mentioned the importance of critical thinking skills for Christian kids.  So many challenges to the Christian faith can become opportunities for growth if your child has the ability to think critically, or, as our kids call it, ‘think for yourself’.  This is because they will be able discern truth from error, and good thinking from bad thinking.

Today I’m going to give you some ideas on how to start that process with your kids, regardless of their age.  It’s surprisingly simple and can easily fit into any schedule.

The easiest way to begin to teach your children how to think critically is to teach them how to use two extremely simple, yet important questions: “What do you mean by that?”  and “How did you come to that conclusion?”  Or, to put these questions more simply: ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’

What do you mean by that? (or What?) clarifies the person’s point.  Say someone says: ‘There is no God’.  You could ask:  ‘What do you mean by ‘God’’.  It’s easy to assume that we know what a person is referring to when they say certain words.  Sometimes we’re right.  However, sometimes we’re not.  Since there’s  no point in debating the wrong point, clarification is important.  That is the first step.

Second, ask: How did you come to that conclusion? (or Why?) This clarifies what the other person’s view point or opinion is based on: the evidence they have to support the truth of their claim.   “I know that there is no God because we’ve never found a place in space in the universe where He could be physically located.’  (I’ve heard this argued by a very intelligent scientist!)

These questions can be asked of a person, or questioned of material that you read.

Where do you begin? 

First off, model good thinking and reasoning skills to your children.  If you look for ways to practice these questions, you’ll find all kinds of opportunities.  Newspaper articles, magazine articles, ads on the TV or radio, books – both fiction and non-fiction – are great sources of material for asking these questions.  Your material does not always have to be religious.  You could question what the ad for socks really means when it says you’ll be happy and prosperous if you buy them.

If you are visiting a museum, there will be tons of opportunities to use these questions!  For example, an exhibit at our local museum claims that a certain dinosaur was a ‘good mother’.  When I saw this, I pointed it out to our kids.  I asked: I wonder what they mean by a good mother?  And: Let’s see why they think this dinosaur was a good mother.  Their evidence for this claim was that she had a nest (I’m serious!).  Then I asked: Is having a nest a good reason for scientists to conclude that this kind of dinosaur was a particularly good mother?

Another example:  Our children have a book called 101 Animal Secrets (Melvin & Gilda Berger, Scholastic Inc.).  The book claims to provide little known facts about animals.  One of these facts states:  ‘Most dinosaurs were the size of chickens’.  We asked: What do the authors mean by that?  From the text in the book we discovered what the authors meant: we often think of dinosaurs as being large; however, the majority of dinosaurs were actually quite small.  We then asked: How did the authors come to that conclusion?  (Why do they think that is true?)   The answer was interesting.  The authors based their factual claim on this evidence: experts believe it to be so, but these same experts think most of the fossils of small dinosaurs were destroyed or otherwise lost forever.

We discussed this with our kids with the questions: What do you think?  Is the lack of evidence for a claim a good reason to believe it?  On his or her own, a child could easily gloss over this.  But alleging that fossils have been lost is not a good enough reason to believe the claim.  There may well be other, better evidence to support this claim, but the evidence provided is not good enough.

This is the kind of activity that should become a habit for you and your kids, and it fits well into every day life.

Now, the potential problem.

Asking these kinds of questions, particularly in face-to-face situations, lends to discussion.   If your kids get the hang of asking these kinds of questions, they could be tempted to use them inappropriately as well.  The ability to think critically can bring confidence, but it could also bring cockiness.  It is really important that our children know how to use these questions in an appropriate manner and character.

As the parent, you need to lay down some ground rules. ‘The questions: ‘What do you mean by that’ (What?) and ‘How did you come to that conclusion’ (Why?) must be used respectfully.  They cannot become an affront to your authority as a parent.  They cannot be used to ridicule another person.

These questions can be used powerfully to expose another person’s poor thinking or poor skill at being persuasive, but they should never be used to make that same person feel poorly about him or herself.  They should invite that person to consider that they may just be wrong, gracefully and tactfully.

You are trying to empower your children to begin to think for themselves, not to steamroll or mock the people or ideas around them.  Their tone of voice and manner of questioning must be respectful.  When you begin this exercise with your children, make sure you are modelling this for them.  Even if you are reading a book together and questioning some of the claims in it, make sure your tone and attitude are respectful.  This is a quest for truth.  We are challenging ourselves to think well about truth claims.  If we are speaking face-to-face with someone and our tone is disrespectful, their guard will come up and we will lose our chance to possibly influence their thinking for good.

Ultimately, this is where critical thinking leads.  It begins as a means to ensure that our own children are able to evaluate evidence in support of factual claims.  However, it ultimately leads to our children being able to articulate their factual claims (like the truth of Christianity) to skeptics.  Learning how to do it well now will prepare them well for the future.

Have you spent time with your child teaching him or her to evaluate truth claims and the evidence in favor and against them?  If so, please let me know how you went about doing it!

Photo: MS Word


One Comment

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  1. johnspenn / Jul 31 2014 9:10 pm

    Great post. The MOST important thing we can do for our children is teach them HOW to think.

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